Some pundits forecast an American League East title for the Boston Red Sox. Others project a wild card berth. And there are many cynical Boston media members who believe the hometown club will not play postseason baseball for a third consecutive year. Two facts are widely agreed upon about the 2016 Red Sox as Monday’s season opener in Cleveland nears: the team will not finish in last place, and it has uncertainties in the starting rotation, the bullpen, the starting lineup and the bench.
Simply put, like the current version of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, it is a true crapshoot predicting what Boston’s record will look like when the regular season ends at Fenway Park against Toronto on October 2.
With a roster loaded with premium veterans and high-ceiling young players; a farm system loaded with talented depth; and a president of baseball operations (Dave Dombrowski) known for implementing memorable trades to upgrade his team, the Red Sox have the ingredients to win the division, capture the American League pennant and win the World Series. To accomplish this, some if not most of these questions must be positively answered:
Will the rotation beyond David Price consistently pitch well?
When healthy, Buchholz is one of the better right-handed starters in the American League. The Red Sox need a healthy Buchholz in 2016, and Buchholz needs a healthy Buchholz in 2016 since the club holds a $13.5 million team option or a $500,000 buyout for 2017.
Porcello looked like he was emerging as the frontline starter Detroit forecast when it drafted him 27th overall out of high school in 2007. Still just 27, the right-hander was 15-13 with a 3.43 ERA and a 1.23 WHIP in 204.2 innings in 2014. Then Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington acquired Porcello in the deal that shipped Yoenis Cespedes to the Tigers in December 2014, and then he signed the sinkerballer to a four-year, $82.5 million deal that begins this season.
It was a forgettable debut campaign in Boston for Porcello last year. He was 9-15 with a 4.92 ERA, and his sinker was not as effective as advertised. This spring, he struggled with a 9.77 ERA in four starts and was surpassed in the rotation by Kelly. If Porcello is more reflective of 2014 than 2015, that will solidify the middle of the Red Sox rotation.
As for Kelly, the 27-year-old right-hander was 8-1 with a 3.77 ERA in 11 starts after the All-Star break last season (including 6-0 with a 2.68 ERA in six August outings). He logged a 2.63 ERA in six spring training starts. His power sinker reaches into the high 90s, and he has the potential to emerge as a No. 2 caliber starter. His career-high in innings was reached last season at 134.1, though, so durability is a concern.
Eduardo Rodriguez, the 22-year-old left-hander who the Red Sox believe can help Price anchor the rotation for several seasons, is recovering from a dislocated knee and will open the season on the disabled list. Until he returns, Wright will occupy the final rotation spot. The versatile 31-year-old right-hander is the type of pitcher every manager covets since he can be used for rotation depth and in long relief.
Left-handers Henry Owens, Brian Johnson and Roenis Elias will provide rotation depth and will open the 2015 campaign at Triple-A Pawtucket. Even when Rodriguez returns – and even if Buchholz, Porcello and Kelly produce behind Price – expect Dombrowski to acquire a starting pitcher well before the July 31 trade deadline.
With Pablo Sandoval opening the season as one of the most handsomely paid reserves in Major League history, and San Diego expressing interest in his third base services, a Boston trade for James Shields or Andrew Cashner makes sense.
Will third base be a position of production for the Red Sox in 2016?
Travis Shaw outplayed Sandoval this spring. There is no doubt about that. The 25-year-old Shaw is in significantly better shape than the Panda, he clubbed 13 home runs in 248 plate appearances as a rookie last season, and he hit .333 with two home runs and 10 RBI in 61 spring training plate appearances. Can Shaw sustain acceptable production as a starting third baseman for a full season?
Sandoval’s agent, Rick Thurman, criticized his client’s benching, telling MLB Network’s Jon Heyman, “If you want to win, why leave the Ferrari in the garage?” Sandoval is certainly not known for the sleekness and speed of a high-performance masterpiece, but he does have the track record of a proven veteran. Entering this season, Shaw was considered a versatile role player who could fill the corner infield spots, and left field. The left-handed hitter’s natural position is first base.
Like Brock Holt, who Red Sox manager John Farrell says will get starts in left field when opposing right-handers are on the mound, Shaw could be better suited for utility role over the long term. If the Sox trade Sandoval, and Shaw struggles, Dombrowski will have no choice but to make a trade because Boston’s high-profile third base prospect, Rafael Devers, is still a few years away from the majors.
Who will step up in left field?
The Red Sox hoped that Cuban import Rusney Castillo would have a prodigious spring at the plate, but the 28-year-old right-handed hitter batted .189 with just one extra-base hit (a double) in 58 plate appearances. That means free agent signee Chris Young is likely to get a chunk of at-bats when left-handers are on the hill (unless Farrell starts Young in center field and Castillo in left field).
The Red Sox have a superstar in the making in Mookie Betts, who will start in right field, and Jackie Bradley Jr. has secured the center field job. Because Castillo has not produced as anticipated, the Red Sox are forced to use the left-handed hitting Holt in left field more than they would like. Holt can play every position except pitcher and catcher, and he is most valuable in a super utility role.
If Castillo continues to struggle, the Red Sox desperately need Young to provide consistent pop from the right side of the plate so left field is not a hole in the lineup.
How will be the bullpen perform beyond Craig Kimbrel?
The 27-year-old Kimbrel has filthy stuff. His fast ball touches 100, and he is one of the top closers in the game. Junichi Tazawa and Koji Uehara form a reliable set-up duo, but they will be relied upon more heavily to open the season with 26-year-old right-hander Carson Smith opening the season on the DL.
Left-handers Robbie Ross and Tommy Layne, and right-handers Matt Barnes and Noe Ramirez will compose the remainder of the Opening Day bullpen. A former first round selection, Barnes has the power arm that can effectively step in while Smith is sidelined.
When Rodriguez returns, Wright will slide into a long relief role.
Will Hanley Ramirez provide much-needed middle-of-the-order production?
With all the hoopla surrounding Sandoval this spring, Ramirez has not been a widely discussed topic. His transition to first base has progressed smoothly with help from infield guru and third base coach Brian Butterfield. Ramirez hit .320 with a .815 OPS in 56 spring training plate appearances. With third base a question mark, the Red Sox need Ramirez to remain healthy, play reputable defense at first base and serve as the right-handed run producer to complement David Ortiz.
An interesting scenario that could develop? Ramirez struggles or gets injured, Shaw slides over to his natural position at first base and Sandoval regains his hitting stroke as the starting third baseman.
Will the bright young stars shine?
Betts, and shortstop Xander Bogaerts are 23. Catcher Blake Swihart will celebrate his 24th birthday on Sunday. Bradley will be 26 on April 15. All four are expected to serve key roles for the Red Sox this season.
Betts and Bogaerts are the type of players who can become perennial All-Stars. Ditto for Swihart as long as the switch-hitting catcher sees regular playing time. Veteran Ryan Hanigan is a solid backup catcher, and Christian Vazquez (who is just 25) is already regarded as one of the top defensive catchers in baseball. He will open the regular season continuing to rebuild strength and stamina as he recovers from Tommy John surgery.
Though the Sox can afford Bradley to bat in the .250s because of the superb defense he provides, they need Betts, Bogaerts and Swihart to consistently produce at the plate so the lineup maintains depth from top to bottom.